Reflections on the first Detroit Future Schools Network Gathering

On June 20, 2013, Detroit Future Schools organized its first ever Network Gathering as part of the 15th annual Allied Media Conference. Ammerah Saidi, Program Coordinator of DFS, shares her experience.

What does it take to imagine a new way of schooling?

Detroit Future Schools gathered parents, artists, students, teachers, community members, and youth organizers from across Metro-Detroit in our attempt to answer this question.

Allied Media Project’s theory of change states that we need individuals who can imagine and actualize new realities for a more just, creative and collaborative world.

This is a task much easier said than done. Imagining new realities requires a cognitive skillset that is not currently nurtured in our school systems. Schools are dominantly places where information and "knowledge" is frozen in time, meant to be memorized and then regurgitated in written form through state mandated tests. The implications of this truth should be horrifying. Without our ability to see beyond our current experiences and circumstances, how can humans ever hope to dismantle the complex systems of oppression that shape our world? How can we rise above the walls of our present day to see what’s possible in the future and decide what we want our futures to become?

However, as a teacher and citizen of the world, I can sleep at night. Why? Because one truth will never be obliterated: humans are born curious and imaginative. It’s written into our DNA. I see my niece exploring her world – touching and tasting her way around a maze that from her eyes seems unnavigable. I see her twisting and turning her body in ways that she’s never seen before in order to get out of her crib or off a dresser or through a hole she most definitely should not be anywhere near in the first place. Her fearlessness and innovation is the truth I carry with me as I enter school after school where dehumanizing education practices are the norm. Instead of teaching to the test, we need schools that will "teach to our humanity." This is a call that Detroit philosopher-activist Grace Lee Boggs has been making for decades. We’re excited that the James and Grace Lee Boggs School is opening this Fall and will begin modeling what this looks like on a school-wide scale.

Photo by Vanessa Miller

Growing the Detroit Future Schools Network at the AMC

At Detroit Future Schools, we are working to prove that teaching to our humanity in our education system as a whole is both pragmatic and revolutionary. We are teaching and learning in ways that foster curiosity and critical thinking, so that schools can become places where students and teachers want to be instead of places they fear not to be – or worse, are legally mandated to be. Over the past two years we have grown a local network of students, teachers, and artists in Detroit who are doing this work in classrooms across the city. We have also grown a national network of supporters and allies. This local-national network made our first gathering possible by contributing $4,350 in 25 days to our Indiegogo campaign.

The goal of our first-ever Network Gathering, held in conjunction with the Allied Media Conference, was to bring together all of the major stakeholders from DFS to reflect on the work we accomplished over the past year, build community, and envision the future of the program. Our day together on June 20 yielded intergenerational moments of collaboration and innovation that I have yet to see consistently in our schools. It began with an icebreaker that found second graders talking to high schoolers about what they believe are possible solutions to problems within schools. Then, youth from our sister organizations, Detroit Future Youth and Detroit Minds and Hearts gave presentations on what kind of programming they’ve been a part of that effectively elevates youth agency and voice. The last half of the day consisted of caucuses and action-planning in cross-generational groups. Rather than dry report-backs, we generated songs, plays and a graphic comic strip to express our ideas for how schools could be better. Our network literally imagined new realities and actualized them in real-time through the arts.

Photo by Vanessa Miller

Our day together was far from perfect and our work is far from done but what I take away from this Network Gathering is the optimism, hope and grit it takes to actualize the world we want to see. I want to have students walk out of classrooms saying what I heard students saying at the end of our time together: "Thank you for this opportunity to speak with adults about school" and "this was one of the best days of my life." I want to see singing, drawing and beat-making infused into our core content areas in schools and not reserved for electives.

As we gear-up for the coming school year we will be applying many of the ideas that came out of our Network Gathering. As importantly, we’ll be drawing from the muscle memory of what it looked, felt, and sounded like to create the kind of learning we want and need. True to that Ghandian rule of thumb people love to plaster as email signatures or t-shirt slogans, but rarely have the courage to enact – in room Hilberry B & C on Wayne State’s campus, DFS became the change that we want to see in our schools – and eventually the world. This youth-created video from our day offers a glimpse of what this looked like. Thank you to all who made the first-ever DFS Network Gathering so incredible.

Photo by Vanessa Miller

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